Next week, Barrett Brown's legal defense fund is publishing the jailed journalist's hilarious new book, Keep Rootin' for Putin: Establishment Pundits and the Twilight of American Competence. Brown's new work takes down talking heads and argues for the revolutionary potential of the Internet. The book couldn't address his case directly, since his prosecutors secured a gag agreement, but implicitly shows why his legal battles are so important.
You remember Barrett Brown, the colourful author who loudly defended the hacktivist collective Anonymous. After the 2007 release of his first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, Brown embraced the cutting edge by publishing his deep research into WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and leaked documents from military and corporate “cybersecurity” contractors in the Guardian, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. He did it all with gonzo flair, publicly labeling himself “Cobra Commander” after the cartoon character, addressing fellow activists by video from bubble baths while drinking wine, and the like.
His new book tears apart the error-ridden blather of five influential pundits and calls for their replacement by populist researchers and activists equipped with the Internet. He envisions a sort of cyber-Library of Alexandria, a more lateral space for public discourse based on the historical record rather than on opinion, often reckless or incoherent, paraded as fact and bestowed from above.
But the kind of inanity he blasts in Keep Rootin' for Putin is now aimed at him by the government. He faces more than a century in prison chiefly for sharing a hyperlink, allegedly, to cancelled credit card data from the Stratfor hack, which landed five million of the Austin-based intelligence firm's emails on WikiLeaks. The credit card data didn't come from him; he just pointed fellow researchers to it during the media buzz generated by the hack. His prosecutors shared the same link by putting it in his indictment, right there on Page 1. So it's okay, ethically, for the Department of Justice to share the link, but not for him to do it?
The government's stupidity extends to charging him for allegedly making threats against the FBI agent who raided his and his mother's homes. In addition to Brown's now-infamous YouTube rants against Special Agent Robert Smith, the prosecution cited his disapproving tweet quoting Fox News analyst Bob Beckel saying of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange: “A dead man can't leak stuff...illegally shoot the son of a bitch.” They argue Brown's quoting of Beckel represents a threat against the FBI agent. But Assange is “not the alleged victim” Smith, Brown's lawyers say dryly in their January motion to dismiss the threat charges. “Mr. Beckel, to wit, remains unindicted.”
In that motion, the defense points out Brown's much-cited video quote that he was “going to ruin [Smith's] life and look into his fucking kids” was immediately preceded by the words “I don't say I'm going to kill him.” They point out the First Amendment requires such statements to rise to the level of a “true threat” of “physical harm” to become offenses. The motion lists the prosecution's selections from Brown's videos and Twitter timeline and shows which statements don't threaten bodily harm, which are conditional, and so on. Further, the context in the videos and on Twitter suggested he meant the sort of journalistic investigation/character assassination widely practiced by Anonymous.
Such Department of Justice stupidity is shielded by the sorts of pundits Keep Rootin' for Putin criticizes, because their professional output is noisy bullshit behind which the authorities can conspire unexamined. Brown aims to burn down the pundits' credibility.
First on the book's hit list is Thomas Friedman, unfortunately a bestselling author and twice-weekly columnist for the New York Times. He told readers in 2001 to “keep rootin' for Putin” as the man to reform Russia, in a column that paid attention to Moscow sushi bars but not the wily leader's creepy backstory. Brown points out that in 1999, Putin had been director of the Federal Security Service, the successor of the KGB, while the Kremlin was planning to bomb Moscow and blame it on Chechen terrorists. Agents from the Service were caught planting explosives in the city; other bombings were attributed to Chechens. Putin, elevated to prime minister, used the supposed attacks as a pretext to invade Chechnya, a war so popular it helped propel him to the presidency. Friedman ignored this deadly intrigue, and instead complimented the “California-Kremlin” rolls.
By itself, Friedman's mistake would be a story of a failed prediction and misplaced focus, but it gets worse. In an August 2008 column entitled “What Did We Expect?” Friedman mocked the Clinton and George H. W. Bush administrations for “short-sightedness” in foreign policy choices the columnist said fueled Putin's rise to power—with nary a word about his own, earlier propaganda for the Russian politician. These are day-in, day-out mistakes for Friedman, the book shows, but the New York Times has been feeding them to us for two decades straight.
The Washington Post gives us the same sort of serial nonsense, Brown explains, taking on Richard Cohen and Charles Krauthammer, two pundits for the paper whose columns have hit newsstands nationwide for 30 years. He traces how Cohen in 2007 accused Hillary Clinton of “forever” lying, then a year later blamed those who made the same claim, accusing them of committing a “ferocious mugging of memory.” He proves Krauthammer has been wrong about basically “every military and foreign policy matter on which he's opined from 1999 to 2010.” As Keep Rootin' for Putin piles up evidence, you begin to realize the mainstream media isn't there to inform you, but, whether through design or sheer incompetence, to distract you.
Brown wipes out William Bennett, host of a nationally syndicated talk radio show, anti-intellectual chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education under President Reagan, and author of such bestsellers as The Children's Book of Virtues. As drug czar under President George H.W. Bush, Bennett said beheading drug dealers would be morally appropriate (“I used to teach ethics—trust me,” he explained to talk show host Larry King) and blamed addiction on Satan. “Bennett is so full of horse shit,” Brown writes. “He could fertilize every bombed-out coca field from the Yucatan to Bolivia.”
The book's last target is Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic for 37 years. Brown ridicules Peretz's writing style, quoting this example: “The New York Post and Reuters both report not exactly that Bernie Madoff has cancer. But that he's told his fellow inmates that he has cancer, pancreatic cancer, at that. Which means that, if the tale is true, he'll be a goner soon, very soon. Unless there's a medical miracle, as sometimes there is even in such terrible afflictions of the pancreas.” Peretz's logic is no less tortured.
Keep Rootin' for Putin, in contrast, is a quick, fun read. You can knock it out in two or three sittings, and you need not be a news junkie to follow the arguments and get most of the jokes. It's written in a bloggy style, with interludes of Led Zeppelin lyrics and surreal examples. “Let us say that I am a Roman pundit named Barriticus,” Brown writes at one point, “and I am living a few years after the initial food riots have occurred. When I givemy magnificent oration, after first having made love to several high-born young ladies...” There are also plenty of Easter eggs for bookworms, with allusions to such writers as H.G. Wells and Dostoevsky.
The book is certainly not dumbed down. His analysis ranks up there with the best of the brilliantly paranoid political authors. You have to hope the Texas juries in his April and May trials scrutinize his case as closely as he does the pundits. Given that gag agreement, it seems Brown's prosecutors fear his intelligence.
Keep Rootin' for Putinis a manifesto, not just some book version of Media Matters, the liberal fact-checking outfit whose articles you email your right-wing uncle to refute the articles he emails you. Brown argues the Internet is our superpower for removing the pundits. It allows us to catalog and cross-reference their mistakes, making a book such as his easier to produce. He has an admirable way of calling for taking up arms without scolding us. “We have a chance to dismantle the obsolete media structure that has already crippled our nation to some great extent and will cripple it further,” he says, “unless those of us who recognize this problem take some sort of, like, action.”
Cutting through the hubris of the pundits, he points out, will clear the way for our own communications. “The most important fact of the 21st century is that any individual on the planet can now communicate with any other individual on the planet,” he says, explaining that we are no longer beholden to nationalist pundits who, as leech-like intermediaries, filter and firewall information. With global networks, we can conduct our own projects for news, analysis, and action. If you want to communicate with revolutionaries the pundits ignore until it's profitable, as Brown and Anonymous did to support the Arab Spring uprisings, you can. If you want to crowdsource research into leaked emails of the government's shady contractors, as Brown's ProjectPM did, you can.
That is, unless the government shuts you down—as they're trying to shut down Brown. This new power for the people, the Internet, with its ability to forge bonds between activists worldwide and publicly archive forbidden data on sites such as WikiLeaks, terrifies the authorities. He takes it all in stride. “Life is full of possibilities,” he notes, “most of them sarcastic.”
Brown, who pleaded not guilty to every charge, is ready for the courtroom battle. On his team is legal heavyweight Charles Swift, who represented former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Salim Hamdan before the Supreme Court in the most significant case to date dealing with the war on terror, winning Geneva Conventions protections for the prisoners and limits to presidential power. Hamdan was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Attorney Ahmed Ghappour, an expert in national security cases, is also on Brown's team. Free speech advocates Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have rallied to his defense.
The prosecution, despite the gag agreement, is already losing on the media front. This month, on House of Cards, a show popular enough to be mentioned on President Obama's Twitter timeline, the hacker character Gavin told the FBI to drop all of Brown's charges. Venues big and small, from this one to the New York Times to WhoWhatWhy, have been questioning the government's case.
Keep Rootin' for Putin has its faults. It could have been buttressed a bit with some statistically-minded analysis of the flows of capital and patronage that put the media institutions and their pundits in power. His asides sometimes get a little distracting, as when he states, “I'm also increasingly irritated by my own writing style.” But for the most part, the style is jazz.
As a generalist, Brown tended to shift focus, which allowed him to draw connections between disparate subjects, but gave the book a bit of a rocky history. He started writing it in 2006, then stopped, then finished it in 2010 before diving into the wild world of Anonymous. The book was originally contracted with Cambridge House Press to be published under the title Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures Of America’s Chattering Class.
If you're at all interested in the media and its failures or the Internet and its potential, you'll find Keep Rootin' for Putin entertaining and, despite the pundits' ridiculousness, inspiring. To get a copy, visit the Free Barrett Brown website and follow @FreeBarrett_on Twitter for announcements. The book will be available for donors to his legal defense fund.